Movie Review - Naz & Maalik
Kerwin Johnson, Jr. stars as Naz, a 18-year-old, Muslim boy in Brooklyn who spends the day with his best friend during the cool, early summer, wearing his khakis, blue shirt and kufi or skull cap. Curtiss Cook, Jr. co-stars as Maalik, a fellow 18-year-old, Muslim boy who is Naz's aforementioned best friend. The first shot of Maalik is him sitting on Naz's stoop reading a pamphlet for LIU, a college in Brooklyn. The purpose of the two of them for that day is to do what they can to raise money for one or both of them to attend and pay for that secondary schooling.
Their tactic is to sell things in and around Fulton Street, a busy and major drag through Bed-Stuy. They sell lottery tickets, religious cards, and not the ones you would assume, as well as candy and snacks not unlike girl scouts selling cookies. They're on the street as well as the metro. They do a lot of walking, hanging out in the park and talking about life and love and their relationship.
As such, Dockendorf's film is reminiscent of Adam Leon's Gimme the Loot (2013). The ease with which he and his cameras move about the streets, the authenticity and the grounded nature of the performances as well as the simplicity of the situation, not getting bogged down with too many moving parts also invokes fellow New York filmmakers like Ramin Bahrani and even George Tillman, Jr.'s The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete (2013) but with the addition of subtle, if at times hot, sexual tension, which cast and filmmaker deftly handle.
In a passing moment, an undercover NYPD officer approaches Naz and Maalik to entrap them into buying a gun. Because one of them considers it for a second as a joke, that puts both of them on the radar of a female, FBI agent to whom the NYPD officer reports. That FBI agent begins to follow the teens to see what they do, and if they get into anything illegal or that could be tied to terrorism.
It just so happened that I watched this film on June 2nd, the day that the news reported that Usaama Rahim, a young, Muslim man was killed outside a CVS Pharmacy in Boston after being under surveillance and being followed by the FBI and counter-terrorism agents. With all the news of the past year of young Muslims being recruited or radicalized by terror groups like ISIS, this film is certainly topical.
But again, this movie is not weighed down by such subjects, even while directly addressing them. It's meant to be funny. Dockendorf sets the table with the opening scene with what could be considered toilet humor, not in the vein of the Farrelly brothers. Yet, the scene does involve bodily fluids and even blackmail, but it leads to some early comedy that isn't overt and has some great sibling rivalry that is funny at first but does go to the obvious dark place.
Naz does have a bit of a guard up. He cares for Maalik, but he's become hesitant. Naz seems more nervous, more anxious, and more concerned for and about the world. He's a bit more insecure and more afraid. Maalik is the opposite. Naz confuses it for Maalik not caring, but Maalik is not as insecure and not as scared by what's around him, so he doesn't have to constantly prove anything as Naz seems to need to do.
There aren't a lot of films about Muslims where the Muslims are the protagonists. There are certainly not a lot of films about gay Muslims, and of the films about gay Muslims, most aren't American. The Bubble by Eytan Fox and Out in the Dark by Michael Mayer are about gay Palestinians in Israel. My Brother the Devil by Sally El Hosaini is about a gay Egyptian in England, and Salvation Army by Abdellah Taia is about a gay Moroccan. Other than documentaries, the only film that comes close is Spike Lee's Get on the Bus.
This film, therefore, stands as quite unique. It might be the first to have two African-American, gay Muslims in love. It's a powerful, first step in changing or widening perceptions about young Muslim men, and their place in this world.
Five Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but contains language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 25 mins.
The film premiered at the SXSW Film Festival in March. It's since played at festivals in Miami and Toronto, even winning an award in Nashville. It's next screening is at the 39th Annual Frameline Film Festival on June 19. Go to Frameline39's web site for times, more play-dates and tickets.